Reading the Highland Villager #167

[A Villager by a large non-flying log.]
[Basically the problem is that the best source of Saint Paul streets & sidewalks news is the Highland Villager, a very fine and historical newspaper. This wouldn't be a problem, except that its not available online. You basically have to live in or frequent Saint Paul to read it. Until this newspaper goes online, sidewalk information must be set free. See also: Three Reasons Why I Re-Blog the Highland Villager.]  

Headline: Riverview transit planners unveil latest designs for traffic in corridor
Author: Jane McClure

Short short version: There are many options on the table for a potential transit line through the West 7th street area and there will be  a meeting where “neighbors will have a chance to sound off on the potential tradeoffs.” [This syntax does not set the tone for a good conversation.] Potential impacts includes “the loss of on-street parking, changes to sidewalk widths and other new traffic configurations.” [Narrowing the sidewalk is not being considered, as far as I know.] The routes that are still part of the study include West 7th Street the whole way, the Canada Pacific rail right of way the whole way, and a combination of the two. A subway-style tunnel was removed from consideration, but could still happen in certain segments. There are questions about whether Canada Pacific, who owns the abandoned rail line, would sell it. The Rail Authority people, including Commissioner Ortega, insist that everything is fine and that they will have confirmation by the end of the year. A cost-benefit analysis is coming up soon. [That will be the interesting moment. I am very curious about the travel time / ridership trade-offs for the different routes, especially if a mixed-traffic option is included for the stretch closest to downtown. In general I’d bet that the CP rail spur will have better transit times than the West 7th alignment, with fewer intersections and much less complexity along the route. That said there would be some ridership tradeoffs.]

Headline: Timeout called on rezoning of two-plus miles of Snelling Ave.
Author: Jane McClure

Short short version: The city is studying changing the zoning along a busy street that just received a new bus rapid transit investment. Neighbors are concerned about  design issues, parking, and being “boxed-in.” The rezoning would change the area to “traditional neighborhood” zoning, which tries to minimize auto-oriented uses and allows for mixed-use [and is generally a very smart idea and has been around for over a decade and i can’t believe Snelling doesn’t have TN zoning yet anyway]. Neighbors are difficult to “mollify.”

Headline: Riverview transit planners narrow options for crossing river
Author: Jane McClure

Short short version: There were a lot of ideas about how the [aforementioned] transit line might cross the river, but some of them were not really possible and have been nixed from consideration, including many potential new bridges. But now there are only three choices: using the existing highway 5 and Ford bridges, or building one new bridge just north of the Highway 5 bridge. [I have a feeling that the Highway 5 bridge is likely not on the table either. IMO the proposed new span right there would be pretty cool, allowing for great ped/bike connection there too, which is currently sadly lacking.]

Headline: Bridging the divide; Proposed spans would reconnect neighborhoods separated by I-94 [“spans” isn’t really the right term here]
Author: Jane McClure

Short short version: There might someday be a land bridge lasting for a half-mile that would connect the two neighborhoods on either side of the freeway. Article includes some history of the freeway construction. There is a new plaza along old Rondo that was recently dedicated in memory of the old street. [It's nice to see the Villager covering news that’s not often in its focus area but involves people of color.]

Headline: Selby-Western parking ideas reviewed
Author: Jane McClure

Short short version: A lot of people like to drive to a popular area with a lot of nice restaurants and park their cars for free on the street there. Neighbors are concerned. Some streets are only have parking on one side of the street. There was a meeting and the group decided to eliminate two potential solutions: having parking on two-sides of the street and installing parking meters. [So both of those things would be free/cheap/pay for themselves solutions that would really work.] Instead the group will look at parking restrictions, or building shared parking lots. Some people would like to have bike parking or better crosswalks or encourage people to take the bus. [Wise! Basically, meters would solve a lot of the demand problem in the sense that it would begin to use price to shape parking behavior. People who want to pay to be close would do so, and those spots would turnover. Others could walk a few blocks and park for free. The two-sided parking thing is really weird. The streets are plenty wide, in my opinion, and I don’t know why neighbors are so adamant about keeping them that way. There are plenty of streets in both Saint Paul and Minneapolis where you have parking on both sides and people just drive slowly and it’s fine, even in winter, though sometimes you have to have temporary one-side parking bans if it snows a lot.] A restaurant ban was discussed and “business representatives were conspicuously absent.” [Sounds like an unpleasant meeting!]

Headline: Land trust lines up financing to develop vacant Selby Ave. lots
Author: Jane McClure

Short short version: A few pieces of vacant land that have been empty for a long time on Selby Avenue might finally get apartment buildings. They will be developed using the [innovative] land trust model, [where the land is held by a separate entity from the housing, intended to keep housing affordable.] CM Tolbert said that Selby Avenue has “momentum.” [As long as it doesn’t have parking meters, anyway. I’m surprised that the Villager article doesn’t actually explain what a land trust is.]

Headline: Federation backs planned expansion of Adams Elementary
Author: Jane McClure

Short short version: A elementary school can expand its building now. Neighbors are concerned about traffic, parking, and the loss of green space, but the neighborhood group approved it anyway. The new parking lot will only have 49 spaces, not 64, but maybe might have 61 someday.

Headline: Council blocks mayoral appointee in hopes of more diversity
Author: Jane McClure

Short short version: The mayor tried to appoint three new people to the planning commission but the council only approved two of them. The third, a white guy, was sent back because some Council Members would like more diversity on the Commission. [Note: I am a white guy on the Planning Commission. However, I am one of the only/few renters on the group. I'm also likely one of the only/few people on the Commission that does not own a car. But with the city being around 50% people of color, the group should better reflect that. I believe there are now two Asian-American women and three African-American men on the Commission, and everyone else is white. It’s also worth noting that the rejected appointee is a labor lobbyist, and the Mayor recently appointed a different labor lobbyist to the Commission two months ago. Not that there’s anything wrong with labor lobbyists. Cliché alert: some of my best friends are labor lobbyists, and it’s not that there’s anything wrong with that, but there are now at least three labor lobbyists on the commission and you’d think the City could be a bit more creative with the nominations...] CMs Noecker and Prince are quoted as saying they should have more diversity. CMs Tolbert and Bostrom would have liked this handled differently. Article includes an interesting geographic breakdown of current Commissioners by Ward: W1 – 3 people, W2 – 5 people, W3 – 3 people, W4 – 1 person, W5 – 2 people, W6 – 2 people, and W7 – 4 people. [For the record, I lived in Ward 5 when I was appointed, but then moved to Ward 2.]

Headline: Hotel to rise near old West End fire station
Author: Jane McClure

Short short version: A parking lot near West 7th Street will get a hotel with 100 rooms. The old fire station next to it will not be torn down and preserved somehow instead. There will be 31 parking spots. The hotel will be “F-shaped.”

Headline: City settles suit with man hit by flying log
Author: Jane McClure

Short short version: Guy walks into the Spot Bar, has a drink, and leaves. A giant log hits him and really messes him up. Years later the city gives him $500K. [Not a joke. “Why don’t you make like a tree and get outta here,” as Biff would say. Not a joke, by the way.]

Headline: Linwood-Monroe EAW up for comments
Author: Jane McClure

Short short version: A school wants to expand its building.

Headline: State approves funds for Snelling median
Author: Jane McClure

Short short version: MN-DOT is going to send $700K to build a median on Snelling between Randolph and Ford Parkway. [Another reason to have more walkable zoning along here. Maybe in the future, “crossing Snelling Avenue” won’t involve a death wish.] Some neighbors are concerned about traffic. Other neighbors would like the median to be landscaped.

Headline: Conditions set on La Cucaracha gambling
Author: Jane McClure

Short short version: An old Mexican restaurant can have pulltabs now. [How do you say pulltab in Spanish anyway? Google says “lengüeta de arrastre” but that can’t be right…]

Headline: ‘The Ford Century’; McMahon pens a history of the automobile industry in Minnesota
Author: Dave Page

Short short version: A guy wrote a history book about the old Ford factory. The factory dates back to the 1920s.Apparently both the workers and the Ford executives were difficult to talk with, and the book has a lot of focus on labor relations at the factory. “Henry Ford tried to divide and conquer,” says the author, describing how the company manipulated unions. [Now here’s where you need labor lobbyists!]


*** 25 Weekend Sidewalk Links! ***

Sidewalk Rating: Tolerable

“A good part of any day in Los Angeles is spent driving, alone, through streets devoid of meaning to the driver, which is one reason the place exhilarates some people, and floods others with an amorphous unease.”

[Joan Didion.]

[The falling leaves on Cathedral Hill.]



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Minneapolis. The classic Midwestern accent is a result of the Northern Cities Vowel Shift.


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Minneapolis, Saint Paul Separating on Skyways

[The two "skyways to nowhere." File photo.]
When I began dissecting their skyway systems years ago, one of my favorite bizarro details was the existence of a “skyway to nowhere” in both of the Twin Cities. What fun! In each downtown, a skyway lingered over the street linking buildings that didn’t exist, urban appendices dangling uselessly in much the same way that bricks don’t.

[Skyway safety.]
The two skyways — Minneapolis’s over Marquette Avenue, Saint Paul’s over Wabasha Street — reminded me of nothing so much as the Simpsons’ “escalator to nowhere” (part of the coda to the famous monorail episode). I like to imagine downtown skyway strollers walking placidly through the skyway only to fall 20 feet to their doom (or perhaps, landing on a well-placed life-saving trampoline like a drugged bear).

To my eye, the twin amputated skyways symbolized the structural autonomy of the skyway systems themselves. They were the material incarnation of architectural agency, the way that our buildings shape us through time. “No matter how long it takes,” they seemed to say, “we will hang out here until a timely erection.”

But that was years ago, and things change, even things as bound by inertia as downtown Saint Paul…

A little over a year ago, and to little fanfare, the mothballed Minneapolis skyway to nowhere was finally re-attached to a building. After over a decade of abandonment, a new mixed-use residential tower ("the Nic on 5th”) rose up on the parking lot next to the Nicollet Mall light rail station. The skyway was “full” again of “life,” as dozens of people walked its carpeted hall during business hours staring at their phones.

And just last week, change came to Saint Paul. The team remodeling the Saint Paul Macy’s white elephant building announced they would remove the skyway to nowhere as part of the remodeling project for the building. The vacant lot still sits there on the other side, but the facade work on the Gruen-designed modernist parking-lot box means that, instead of waiting for a future building, the designers are opting to just forget about the skyway and focus their attention on the street below.

[Two Skyways Diverged in an Empty Downtown, and I Took the One Less Traveled By… (which is really hard to do because these things are really empty, man]

The divergent fates of the two skyways are no accident. Sure, the two downtowns have vastly different economics. (If Saint Paul’s downtown had demand like Minneapolis’, it’s likely the skyway might have stayed up to meet a new building.) But it’s fitting that the Saint Paul skyway is disappearing, because downtown planners have been more adamant about moving beyond skyways. While they might seem similar on the surface, there are a number of ways that the two skyway systems — one public and one private — are becoming less like each other.

Expansion vs. Contraction

[One of my favorite Minneapolis skwyays, on the Eastern periphery.]
Planners in both cities admit that skyways are bad policy, architecturally and economically, but that doesn’t stop developers from wanting to build more of them. Like the one ring, the totemic allure of transcending public space is difficult to resist. But words are one thing, and buildings quite another. if you look at the actions taking place in both downtowns, they are divergent.

Unofficially, downtown Saint Paul is done building new skyways. (Officially, there was almost a sentence in the last downtown plan stating as much, but at the last minute the plan was changed to say that skyways would be strongly discouraged.) There have been occasional debates I’ve encountered over the years where people suggest a new skyway-attached building outside of the downtown core. For example, there’s a potential debate about the “Gateway” site, the large vacant lot at Kellogg and West 7th, next to the Xcel Center. The city’s aspirational 2014 downtown plan (“Saint Paul: City on the Move!”... yes it actually says this) depicted the potential hotel there as being connected by skyway to the arena and the parking lot behind it.

[Call for skyways (CFS) from a 2014 plan by a downtown Saint Paul task force.]

This would be a big change for an area which is so far skyway-free, and I for one would be against it. I’ve spoken a few people in the West 7th neighborhood group who are also strongly opposed to skyways, making the case that they would strongly impact views and a sense of place along this important street. More importantly, a skyway would run counter to the goals of downtown of increasing street life, which the city has been working on for a while. And even more importantly, a skyway here is not necessary. Ingress and egress at the Xcel Center works just fine as it is, and if any group should know how to dress for a five-block walk to and from their car, it’s hockey fans.

(Instead, a hotel project like the one depicted in the rendering is under construction a block away at the old 7 Corners Hardware site, and it’s blissfully free of sun-blotting skyways.)

Plans for the Gateway site are currently in the works, likely mixed-use residential or office space and, if they’re smart, Saint Paul policymakers will take skyways off the table from the very beginning. It’s not a coincidence that none of the new building projects downtown — CHS Field, the Custom House, the Penfield — are skyway connected. The past and future charm of Saint Paul depend on the old pre-skyway architecture.

[New skyway in Minneapolis.]
Meanwhile, downtown Minneapolis has just completed its largest new skyway in decades, with the giant airlock skyway running through the Wells Fargo offices and docking into the crashed spaceship Vikings stadium. Though Minneapolis’ official downtown plan — the 2025 Plan — makes some strides about admitting there is a “skyway paradox,” the fact on the ground is that the investment is not on the ground. Instead, it’s dangling twenty-five feet in the air, “closes” on weekends and evenings, and is impossible to find the entrance to. (Yes, I know a preposition is dangling on the end of my sentence like a skyway to nowhere…) That’s bad news for Minneapolis, which will continue to struggle to create quality street-level sidewalks in the downtown core.

[From a 2014 downtown Minneapolis plan, by the Downtown Council.]

The skyway link: exception and the rule

[Saint Paul's central station skyway tower.]
The other place to witness the contrast between the two cities is in their skyway connectivity. Though the #1 complaint about downtown skyways is that they are too confusing, for many property owners, the obscure entrances are a feature, not a bug.

Back in the 1980s, and again two years ago, downtown Minneapolis leaders brought in famous architects and urban designers to try and square the skyway circle and “re-think” Nicollet Mall. As I wrote in Minnpost, during both remodeling processes, consultants recommended a high-profile easy-to-navigate link between the skyways and the street. And both times, downtown decision makers nixed the idea.

The problem for building owners was simple. A straightforward connection would run counter to the ugly truth behind the skyway system: skyways are explicitly designed to be private space used by white people wealthy people office workers, and to keep out black people poor people "those people" anyone not spending money. In that way, the downtown skyway system is the perfect symbol of Minnesota’s racist passive-aggressive culture, allowing suburban downtown workers to conveniently ignore the realities of visible poverty and racial segregation, and then blame it on the weather to boot! Skyways become the front lines of the architectural battle for downtown, and an easy-to-use access point on Nicollet Mall would provide a tremendous beachhead.

(Of course, this is all my personal analysis of the situation. Officially, nobody admits that skyways deliberately befuddle.)

[Two failed visions for connecting the skyways to the street in downtown Minneapolis.]
In Saint Paul, on the other hand, the city invested in a very public, very central, easy-to-navigate link between the city and the street. And, just as you’d expect in a segregated city, the new skyway has proven to be a massive headache for building owners, prompting some introspective navel gazing by downtown leaders.

[A bathroom not open to the public in downtown Minneapolis.]
To me, these two proposals — one realized, one rejected — point to the unresolvable tension skyways create between private and public space. At best, the skyways function like a suburban shopping mall. But at worst, this ambiguity explodes into often racist profiling and policing, as happened with the Chris Lolle incident in a Saint Paul downtown skyway last year.

(Side note: according to one study I read, for decades, many police incidents in the Minneapolis skyways have gone unreported, handled by private security to avoid headlines and the potential destabilization of property values that come with them.)

Either way, however, the impossibly blurry lines that skyways create make them very difficult to control or effectively police. And even if skyways are “successful” at achieving their modest nine-to-five goals, their existence leaves the downtown sidewalks out in the cold, greatly reducing the potential for either downtown to have thriving ground-level businesses and diverse, self-regulating street life.

A Bold Prediction about Downtown

[Updated rendering from the 2014 downtown Saint Paul vision document.]
It might seem strange to say so right now, but I’m bullish on downtown Saint Paul’s future as a real urban space, while I fear that the Minneapolis downtown core is going to be more difficult to resuscitate. This is odd to say now because downtown Minneapolis is much “hotter” than Saint Paul; cranes galore, surface parking lots evaporating, and office and residential populations that dwarf its Eastern twin.

But barring a massive increase in density, there’s no reconciling the skyways with thriving street life. In its most recent visioning document, the Minneapolis Downtown Council says a lot of nice things about sidewalks. They write that they want to “deliver a consistently excellent pedestrian experience that inspires people to explore Downtown block after block, no matter the season or time of day—24/7/365” and to “embrace density to build the kind of critical mass required to sustain a successful urban core.”

[Lady gazing wistfully at the Nicollet Mall sidewalk.]

Yet architecture tells a different story. The large new downtown park is nice, but half the people that might use it will simply look down from a distant window like gerbils. As long as skyways suck up street life, the park, like much of downtown’s plazas and “green spaces”, will remain symbolic, used ten times a year on warmer Sundays. The thriving parts of downtown Minneapolis have been and will continue to be outside the skyway system — the North Loop, Warehouse District, and Guthrie riverfront — and the sidewalks in the core, including Nicollet Mall many hours of the day, will remain largely lifeless.

[Saint Paul's skyway to nowhere, not long for this world.]
Meanwhile, if Saint Paul can minimize its skyways, there’s a great deal of street life potential. Ideally, the city would remove skyways from existing buildings, especially those where the steel bridges were retrofit into historic properties. Eventually, this will have to happen, so why not now? In twenty years, particularly if we can build a rail connection along the Riverview corridor, we might be talking about how vital downtown Saint Paul has become, and how walkable, pleasant, and architecturally seamless the downtown streets are compared to its Western twin.

And so we wait for the downtown renaissance. As they remove the skyway to nowhere over Wabasha, one of Saint Paul’s best downtown streets despite the parking lots, it’ll be nice to get a little more sunlight on the sidewalk.


My TEDxMinneapolis Sidewalk Talk is On the Air!

This August, I was one of the speakers at TEDxMinneapolis’ annual big show, giving a talk on sidewalks. I’m happy with how it turned out and grateful to the (volunteer) team at TEDxMinneapolis for believing in me and greatly helping shape the talk. I’m also indebted to my friends who gave me crucial feedback. Thank you! 

One of the tricks to putting a talk like this together is making it seem like it’s off the cuff, minimizing the work involved. But in reality, it was a lot of work. I began meeting with my three-person TEDxMinneapolis team back in May, for hour-long sessions where we’d go over ideas, I’d give draft versions, get feedback, and we’d discuss ways to change it. Admittedly, there’s kind of a “formula” for TED talks — personal story, big problem, a-ha moment, pivot to change narrative, maybe some jokes — but it’s a broad formula, kind of like the scientific method meets a thirty-minute sitcom. TED talks can be done well or poorly, and can head in lots of different directions.

When I was researching my talk, and refining the topic, I googled around to find and, to be honest, didn’t find all that much. There’s a good one from Regina, Saskatchewan about kids walking to school, another about having “walking meetings” at work, and there’s a kid from Colorado describing a thousand-mile walking journey. But nothing out there really focuses on the material role that urban design plays in making walking possible, nothing really got at the role of sidewalks and cities in shaping our more personal behavior. 

Delicate Balance

[One of the only two "selfies" I've ever taken.]
One of the ways that the TEDxMinneapolis team really helped me was in reinforcing the idea of balancing a message to make it broadly appealing. For example, the balance between positive stories and negative criticism was an initial focus with this blog, where I wanted to include lots of stories about how great walking can be in the Twin Cities alongside critical analyses of why our streets need improvement. Thus the somewhat-long-lived "sidewalk of the week" feature and all the fun photographs, alongside my usual ranting and sometimes pointed sarcasm.

Getting that balance right is difficult, and it's something the TED people think about carefully. Nobody wants to be lectured about how irresponsible or horrible the world is. People don't respond well to facts and charts lacking personal narratives, or the classic lectures parodied in (the horrible propaganda film) Ferris Bueller.

With lots of help from my consulting team, the talk tries to be carefully balanced between negative and positive tone, personal stories and abstract information, points about the magnitude of the problem balanced with achievable "call to action"-type aims and ends. That's something all of us should think about, and this was a great experience in creating an effective narrative.

Thinking About Audience

The other big thing you realize when doing a TED-type talk is the importance of thinking past your usual audiences. When you start becoming obsessed with a subject, no matter what it is, you can easily become swallowed up bye by the depth of your passion, becoming more narrowly focused on finely-honed concepts or language. As you do this, your audience inevitably both contracts and intensifies, and that's part of the fun of both academia and the internet.

But that kind of distillation of conversation can quickly become an echo chamber with less and less political efficacy. Thinking through a TED-type lens forces you to think about new audiences, people who might have never thought much about sidewalks, urban design, or walking in the first place. That's a very useful exercise for anyone who wants to translate ideas into action, and also a great exercise, in general, for getting out of personal or theoretical ruts.

It's also just kinda fun to memorize a twenty-minute speech, prepare in a "green room" and perform before a large audience who laughs at your jokes. So thanks again to my excellent TEDxMinneapolis team, especially Jasmine, Dustin, and Megan, all the people who came to my practice talk and gave me feedback, and my friends and family to attended the big show.



Twin City Sidewalk Vendors #4

[West Side, Saint Paul.]


 [Selby-Dale, Saint Paul.]

 [Location forgotten.]

 [West 7th Street, Saint Paul.]
 [Somewhere near Lake Minnetonka.]

  [Somewhere near Lake Minnetonka.]

[Chicago, IL.]

Twin City Message Boards #13

[Southwestern Wisconsin.]

 [Southwestern Wisconsin.]

[Downtown, Minneapolis.]

[Railroad Island, Saint Paul.]

 [Cedar Avenue, Minneapolis.]

[Cambidge, MA.]

[Salem, MA.]

[Chicago, IL.]